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Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Right to Self Determination - Tamil Eelam > Self Determination & the Multi Ethnic Plural Society - Nadesan Satyendra


Self Determination and the 'Multi Ethnic Plural Society'

Nadesan Satyendra
Network, September 1993

"The political reality is that there is nothing 'multi ethnic or plural' about the society over which the Sri Lanka government seeks to impose unitary rule. If nothing else, forty years of gross and consistent violations of the human rights of the Tamil people is proof of that."

In certain circles where a search is on for a solution to the armed conflict in the island, the oft repeated mantra is that Sri Lanka is a 'multi ethnic plural society'. It is a mantra which the Sri Lanka government has also found useful to chant from time to time.

The mantra has a nice meditative ring to it. It conjures up the soothing vision of a society where all ethnic groups are equal and a plurality of view points is encouraged and secured. But mantras intended to resolve an armed political conflict, must fit the political reality on the ground.

The political reality is that there is nothing 'multi ethnic or plural' about the society over which the Sri Lanka government seeks to impose unitary rule. If nothing else, forty years of gross and consistent violations of the human rights of the Tamil people is proof of that. That these violations were no accidental happenings is evidenced by the statements of Sinhala political leaders and opinion makers during the past several decades:

"The history of Sri Lanka is the history of the Sinhalese race" -D.C. Vijayawardhana, The Revolt in the Temple, 1953

''...The time has come for the whole Sinhala race which has existed for 2500 years, jealously safeguarding their language and religion, to fight without giving any quarter to save their birthright... I will lead the campaign..." -J.R.Jayawardene, Sinhala Opposition Leader reported in Sri Lanka Tribune: 30th August 1957

"If we are ruling, we must rule. ...Let us rule as a majority community" - Mrs. Wimala Kannangara M.P., Sinhala Minister for Rural Development, in Sri Lanka's Parliament, July 1981

"I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people... now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion... the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here... Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy." - President J.R.Jayawardene, Daily Telegraph, July 1983

''The majority in this country are Sinhalese. Without the consent of the majority no one can come into power" - Ven. Galaboda Gnanassara Thera, the Chief Incumbent of Gangaramaya, January 1992

It was the Sinhala attempt to subjugate and assimilate which resulted in the rise of the armed resistance of the Tamil people, led today by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The people of Tamil Eelam are not simply an ethnic group. Their togetherness is not only a cultural togetherness. There are many reasons for this. The Tamils are a people who have lived within a relatively well defined territory for many centuries. It is here that, in the past, they established their own separate and independent state and defended it against alien invaders. It is here that they founded their families and it is here that they sought refuge, in more recent times, from attacks launched by Sinhala goon squads.

These historical memories are a part of their political consciousness today. The Tamils are a people whose feelings of togetherness have been consolidated by over 40 years of ever widening and deepening Sinhala oppression. It is a political togetherness which has been cemented through their participation in a political struggle against that oppression. Their willingness to suffer and if necessary die in that struggle serves to underline the poignant strength of the national political consciousness that they have acquired.

The words of Hugh Seton-Watson in Nations and States are apposite:

"A nation is a community of people, whose members are bound together by a sense of solidarity, a common culture, a national consciousness...a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one.

It is not necessary that the whole of the population should so feel, or so behave, and it is not possible to lay down dogmatically a minimum percentage of a population which must be so affected. When a significant group holds this belief, it possesses 'national consciousness'...

The belief that every state is a nation, or that all sovereign states are national states, has done much to obfuscate human understanding of political realities..''

Fifteen Non Governmental Organisations put it succinctly at the UN Human Rights Commission in February this year:

''A social group, which shares objective elements such as a common language and which has acquired a subjective consciousness of togetherness, by its life within a relatively well defined territory, and its struggle against alien domination, clearly constitutes a 'people' with the right to self determination.''

By any and every test, the Tamils today, constitute a nation. But, ofcourse, definitions are not ends in themselves. In Tamil we say: Ettu Churakai Curriyuku Uthavuthu - 'the word churakai written on an ola leaf cannot be used to make curry''.

Simply because, by definition, the Tamils are a people with the right to self determination will not have the result that they will be recognised as such by the international community, leave alone by Sri Lanka.

Martin Woollacott's recent comments in the Guardian, on the Bosnian conflict offer food for thought about the real world:

''Nobody involved in this war, in fighting it or in trying to stop it, was born yesterday. What matters most in any agreement, is territory, what matters secondly is international legitimacy, what matters thirdly are constitutional arrangements and what matters least are human rights provisions..''

The Tamils, too, were not born yesterday. They know that it is because the armed resistance of the Tamil people led by the Liberation Tigers has succeeded to the extent that they hold territory in the North-East that Tamil rights is on the international agenda.

They know that if that resistance fails, Sri Lanka will have no further use for Tamil quislings. They know that if that resistance fails, they will be left with the pleaders of the TULF rump whose pleas during the past forty years and more did little to stop the onslaught on Tamil rights and Tamil lives.

Territory, international legitimacy, constitutional provisions and human rights are, ofcourse, inter connected. Without human rights, legitimacy may be more difficult to achieve. Without legitimacy, it may be more difficult to hold territory over a period of time. But without territory, a people may cease to exist - and in the end it is this which is fundamental.

And it is this which the Sri Lanka government understands only too well when it prevaricates on the merger of the North-East, when it seeks to divide the Tamil homeland and when it launches its genocidal military operations in the North-East.

The sooner that informed sections of the international community openly recognise that Sri Lanka is engaged in a war for land in the Tamil homeland, that there is nothing 'multi ethnic or plural' about the society over which the Sri Lanka government seeks to impose unitary rule, the more quickly will the search begin for a political solution where the Tamil people and the Sinhala people may freely associate and cooperate with each other on equal terms. Self-determination is not a dirty word.

The words of PLO leader Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Palestine-Israel Declaration of Principles on 13 September bear repetition here:

''Our people do not consider that exercising the right to self determination could violate the rights of their neighbours or infringe on their security. Rather, putting an end to their feelings of being wronged and of having suffered an historic injustice is the strongest guarantee to achieve coexistence and openness between our two peoples and future generations.''


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